Mills Girls & Black Power: A Roundtable Discussion

As a follow-up to our winter 2021 piece detailing the fight for civil rights at Mills, we speak to four Black alumnae who experienced it firsthand.

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In the winter 2021 issue of Mills Quarterly, we published an excerpt from “Black Power and the Mills Girl,” an academic article recently published in the Journal of Civil and Human Rights by Denison University professor Lauren Araiza about the occupation of then-President Robert Wert’s office in 1969. One of the ways in which Araiza researched the piece was by interviewing a number of Mills alumnae who were involved in the Black Power movement at the College.

We gathered four of those participants over Zoom in January to talk about the piece and the ups and downs of their time at Mills. The talk was lively, passionate, and filled with memories, both good and bad. The full transcript of the discussion is below.

Mills Quarterly: Now that the piece is out, what do you think about it?

Cheryl Blankenship ’72 (second from left): The article was a bit provocative. I hadn’t thought about the experience from the perspective that she laid out, nor the impact of it, so I’m still mulling it over. It was a lived experience and I’m glad we did it.

Micheline Beam ’72 (far left): What surprised me about the article was that I didn’t realize that demonstrations flew in the face of what “Mills girls” were supposed to be. I never quite had a concept of what that was, but obviously if you were a woman of color, you weren’t it. With the concerns we had, I don’t think any of us were really concerned about it not being typical “Mills girl” behavior.

We’ve had attorneys, judges, educators, scientists— all of us did well. After all of that, [our experiences] did not put out any of our lights, and it did not stop us from whatever course we were going to take.

Micheline Beam ’72

Sheryl Bize-Boutte ’73 (second from right): That part of the article was what I was most familiar with.1 It’s interesting how our different experiences at Mills determined what jumped out at us. One of my early experiences at Mills was having a professor call my mother and basically tell her that I wasn’t acting how a Mills girl should act. And the only reason that she said was because I had a job.

Debbie Harrison ’72 (far right): I had a job, so I don’t know why that was such a big to-do. It was part of my scholarship, and I worked in the library.

Bize-Boutte: I had a work-study job with two other white Mills students. So for some reason, this professor had that old finishing school attitude toward Mills, and just did not like the fact that I was there doing something that she didn’t feel that a Mills girl should do.

Generally speaking, I thought [Araiza] did a good job with the article, and she conveyed the culture, the feelings, and the things that actually happened during that period of time. I really liked her adding in the view that the Oakland Tribune reporter had of us.2 You see, his view of us was formed by the culture that surrounded the entire institution of Mills College, which is still there to this day. The way he talked about us was so disrespectful and hurtful.

Beam: And demeaning. I had no idea that that was his perspective at the Oakland Tribune until I read the article and found out about it.

[Araiza] did a fantastic job. I think she was true to the time and what was going on at that particular time; it was a great article.

Harrison: Yes, I enjoyed it. I started to look at all the pictures and thought, I remember that! And then I said, “You know what, Debbie? You weren’t there for that part!”3

Beam: And I’m struck by the similarities between some of the things we experienced way back when with what’s still going on. Not that much of a difference—nooses, professors saying inappropriate comments, stuff going on in the residence halls—so it’s disturbing to me, that all of these decades later, not too much has changed. It seems as though every generation of students has to go through this because the institution has not adequately addressed the concerns and made the fundamental changes needed to keep this from rearing its ugly head, generation after generation.

Bize-Boutte: In terms of what a Mills girl was defined as back then: even though that definition has changed, there is still a separation between students of color and white students in the way a Mills girl is supposed to be. Many Mills women are now at the age where they’re writing memoirs, and white women who were students at Mills [when we were] are revealing things that would not necessarily be considered what a good Mills girl would do, like having to spend the night at Alta Bates hospital because they had overdosed. All of this stuff was hidden from us so that they could maintain the facade.

Quarterly: The article proposes that 1969 was a turning point in Mills history. What did you see in the aftermath of those protests?

Bize-Boutte: The aftermath helped to launch my writing career, because I started writing for the college newspaper as a freshwoman, and I kept doing it until I graduated. And there was no topic that I wasn’t allowed to talk about. When I go back and read some of that stuff now, I go, “Ooh, that’s really bad,” and then some of it I read and go, “Oh, that was so good! You were so perceptive!” I wrote about the war, relationships between Black men and Black women, the Black Panthers, and professors at Mills who were trying to thrust white values down our throats. Some of it [my writing] was met with a smirk, though some of it was welcomed. I really don’t know how it helped with the situation; all I can say is that the era ushered in my ability to do that. And I haven’t stopped writing since then.

Blankenship: The article opened my eyes to the fact that that woman was going back to Dean [Patricia] Brauel and telling her what we were talking about.4 I remember all of our meetings over by the Tea Shop, and I remember pushing into Wert’s office and the demonstrations. I remember when we took over the bookstore,5 because most of the Black students were short: Micheline is short, and Debbie and I are probably around the same height, but we were pushed to the front door like we were supposed to block everything, so that was a little scary. I found myself in the thick of it, but I didn’t know what I was doing. So yes, I think it opened up activism for me, and for us, just because it was there. And the article laid bare that Mills women did it in a “respectful and dignified” way. I mean, we were strong—which I think Black women are, period—and forceful, in the way we conduct ourselves. We’re direct, we follow through, and we keep pushing.

Bize-Boutte: I have to tell you three sisters, that what you did in 1968—you know, we all say that we stand on someone’s shoulders—you laid the groundwork for me to be able to do what I did when I came in 1969. So for that, I thank you.

Beam: You’re welcome. That groundwork was laid in the spring, before we got there in the fall of ’68.6 When a group of people feels oppressed, there should be activism, and I think the activism has continued because the institution has not changed enough. If things that happened 40 years ago had changed, we would not be having this conversation.

We were swept up in everything that was happening at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley. But Mills had its own unique issues. And we didn’t need men on campus—we just decided that it was enough and we were not going to accept it, and we just kept plodding right along. I drew my support from the sisters around me, as well as some white allies.

Every sister that I knew at Mills has done well. We’ve had attorneys, judges, educators, scientists— all of us did well. After all of that, [our experiences] did not put out any of our lights, and it did not stop us from whatever course we were going to take. We persevered and did quite well in institutions that were not unlike Mills, except bigger, and probably more racist, but we persevered because Mills was a microcosm of the rest of the country.

Bize-Boutte: Amen!

Harrison: I happened to start teaching in Los Angeles when the district made a mandatory transfer of Black teachers into the San Fernando Valley. By the way, I lived in the city of Carson, and that was 50 miles from my school. So I called my union. And ladies, that’s where I did my activism. I went from being just a teacher to the chapter chair at the school—which is like the union rep—to an officer of United Teachers Los Angeles. (I went to jail for teachers, you know.) And then I went from there to the board of directors for the California Teachers Association.

Bize-Boutte: You became a true activist!

Beam: You’re a Mills woman.

Bize-Boutte: That’s the key right there. We are Mills women. Mills reinforced for me the feeling that I could do anything that I wanted to do. And I hear that in each and every one of you, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Blankenship: It’s not so much that Mills did it; it’s the people who came together, who interacted and supported one another. It’s about the relationships. And so what Mills did was bring us together, and allowed us to understand that the sky was the limit, that we didn’t really have boundaries. And I think the activism probably pushed that perspective. At that period of time, our culture was coming out of segregation, so that helped us understand that the sky was the limit, that we could be activists, that we could push boundaries in every kind of way.

Quarterly: What were your impressions of your classmates, especially your white classmates, when you first arrived at Mills?

Beam: I applied, I got in, and my mother and I went to a reception for Oakland students who had been accepted. It was at [former art professor] Ralph Du Casse’s house, and my mother and I rang the doorbell. This white lady came to the door, and she said, “Oh, you all can go around the back.” Clearly, I wasn’t there to be a student; my mother and I were obviously working! At that point, I said, “I’m done” and my mother said, “No, you got in, you’re going to go.” Du Casse came to the door and he apologized and he was ever so gracious. But this was in the middle of Oakland, and this woman was so put out by people of color coming to her door that she assumed we were there to work, as opposed to being one of the incoming students.

And then we got on campus, and there were so few of us that we knew all of the Black students. You see one: “Hey, how are you doing? What’s your name? Where do you live, what dorm?” We were few and far between, but we were glad to see somebody who looked like us on campus because there wasn’t any faculty or staff who looked like us.

Blankenship: When I got to Mills, I was coming from South Carolina, and that was the very first time I was in an environment with anyone except African Americans, and at first I was a little intimidated. One of the things they did was pair us with other Black students as roommates, but I remember white students saying things: “Let me touch your hair.” “Does your skin color come off, like get around your shirt collar or something like that?” There was a sense that we weren’t supposed to be there, that we were affirmative action enrollees. I graduated high school as valedictorian, and in the South, we had incredible educations because we were taught by PhDs—Black teachers were [kept] out of white schools. We all knew that we had to be better than the next person just to achieve, and we also knew that our success was bound up in everybody’s success. So you had to make your race proud, your family proud, and in this case, make the other Black students proud.

Bize-Boutte: I only lived a few blocks away from Mills, so it didn’t make any sense for me to spend that extra money [on housing]. Once I set foot on campus to go to class, it surrounded me—it was unmistakable that the atmosphere was one of “we really don’t want you here and you need to prove why we should let you stay.”

Harrison: First of all, I’m from South Central Los Angeles, and the only white people I knew were my teachers. And I really wanted to go to Radcliffe, so I applied, but I didn’t get in because it had already reached its racial quota. One of my counselors said, “Well Debbie, if you’re truly interested in a women’s college, I know one in Oakland.” I applied to Mills and was accepted, and I received a nice scholarship. But my aunt, who was supposed to be taking me to school, refused because of everything you all are talking about. She said, “Why should I take my child over there?” But I really enjoyed my experience at Mills, because I did meet so many wonderful African American students, but I also met some wonderful white students. I wanted to live with white people—I wanted to try it, see what it was like— and I always tell people, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. [Laughs] But I had a good experience, and the article just brought back memories.

Yes, it was a school of rich girls, but it exposed me to things I had never been exposed to, and that only helped me to understand that I was actually richer in life than I had ever understood myself to be.

Cheryl Blankenship ’72

Blankenship: I didn’t walk away with a negative opinion about my experience at all. One of the things I came away with right away was that my [high] school may have been under-resourced, but it did not under-prepare me. I was certainly even with the other students at Mills, and honestly better than many of them.

The Black Power Movement brought something significant to campus. My parents just didn’t know—they thought they were sending me to a safe environment, and I’m coming out of this small hamlet of a town, but I was throwing away all of my nice clothes and I got my natural, and….oh my God, we all were so beautiful with our naturals. Blue jeans were the thing, and having classes on the lawn, and, in retrospect, the war in Vietnam, and life lessons—those ended up being more important to me than what was coming out of books at the time.

Looking back, I can appreciate the exposure, and it was different. But the things I took away from the experience sent me on a different trajectory. Black Power, my background, and everyone since: they prepared me to hold onto my cultural self. And yes, it was a school of rich girls—I lived in Mills Hall, and you had to wear a skirt to dinner certain nights of the week—but it exposed me to things I had never been exposed to, and that only helped me to understand that I was actually richer in life than I had ever understood myself to be. And I think that the white students were learning as much from us as we were from them.

Bize-Boutte: Those who were interested in learning.

Blankenship: Absolutely. I think that we exploded myths about who African Americans are and what our intelligence is about.

Bize-Boutte: And I will say, when I graduated from Mills in 1973, I had no idea how much it would impact and stay in my life, at that point.

Beam: That’s true.

Bize-Boutte: And I had no idea that I would end up being on the staff at Mills College for a while and have the ability to look back and see the institution from student, alumna, and staff perspectives. I have to say that some of the attitudes that they have about Black students on campus permeate every single layer of the College. Just as you have white people who are embracing and inclusionary, you still have that overall, overarching feeling that you don’t quite belong.

Beam: I must say, I got a good education at Mills. [Professor Emeritus of Psychology] Gordon Bronson referred me to Michigan State, where I got my PhD. I tell people that I have a PhD in psychology, but I also have a bachelor’s in white women. After I left Mills, there was no setting I couldn’t handle. Mills gave me my voice. And I got that voice on campus because of all the stuff that was going on, contrary to what should have been going on. A lot of what I learned was not in the classroom.

Blankenship: I eloped at the end of my second year, and when I graduated, I was very pregnant, so I wasn’t going on to graduate school immediately. I was trying for different jobs in the corporate sector, but didn’t get them. I’d used to work the switchboard at Mills, and from that became broadly known across campus, so Donna Hunt approached me and said, “Look, we have an opening for assistant director of financial aid, would you be interested? I’ve been watching you all these years and I think you would be great.” I was very happy, and I took the job and stayed on at Mills for eight years.

I am so grateful for that role, because it launched my career—I’ve worked in money around the world ever since. I went to MIT and was the associate bursar there, handling all of the tuition and fees for the college, and then I went to AmeriCorps and managed programs in 24 states. And now, I work with nonprofits helping them with money. It’s been so rewarding to me to help people become self-actualized to do the things they want to do, and not have finances be the thing that holds them up from doing that.

Quarterly: Do you have any thoughts on the activism that’s happening among students at Mills today?

Bize-Boutte: Other than social media, I don’t see a whole lot. But you know, the pandemic has put a damper on a lot of stuff. I imagine, just in my own mind, that the Black Lives Matter protests were probably full of Black Mills women. That’s who they are.

Beam: When I moved to California, I said I would go back to Mills to mentor and do whatever I could for the students of color there. My initial reaction was that they’re younger, and some of them assumed things would be different in terms of racism and pushback by students and things on campus. And a lot of them have realized that it’s time to be active again. So there’s a lot of activism now, on campus. Unfortunately the pandemic has kind of dampened it, but there’s a lot going on now, with that art installation7—which really was a noose, let’s call it what it was—and that stirred up a lot for the students there. So I think they realize that it’s time for activism again, to speak up and voice their concerns again, and they’ve done a wonderful job in the last three or four years. In terms of their concerns about Mills, it’s the same issues that were there 40 years ago. New faces, same old stuff. You would think that folks over this period of time would be more creative with their racism!

I call it a George Floyd moment, where many institutions are much more willing to listen and hear now than they were before. How long it will last I do not know, but I do think that Mills students have realized that Mills really needs to do more. They have not done enough in the past, and some stuff is still going on, things are still happening on campus.

Three students have put together what’s called a wellness package for Black students, addressing racially-informed trauma. And they presented it to the College about their concerns over the years and recently, with what’s going on on the campus, and I think you can get it online. But they presented it to the president, there are committees now looking at these issues, going to the trustees. It’s a wonderful document, but it saddens and angers me that this stuff is still going on.

  1. Bize-Boutte wrote a piece in the fall 2015 issue of the Quarterly, “Pride and Pain,” that details much more about her experience at Mills from 1969 to 1973. Read it at
  2. In her article, Araiza cited several misogynistic Tribune columns by Al Martinez, who consistently belittled the efforts of Black Student Union members. One quote: “… riot is such a masculine term, dear, and demonstration is positively lewd.”
  3. Despite her involvement with the BSU, Harrison wasn’t able to participate in the occupation of President Wert’s office due to illness.
  4. Araiza noted in her article that the house mother of Orchard Meadow reported to the administration when the BSU met in that residence hall.
  5. Before the occupation of the president’s office, BSU members organized a collective action at the Mills College Bookstore, preventing any customers from entering until the financial aid committee agreed to assist students who could not afford to buy books.
  6. In the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968, Black students began protesting conditions at Mills through newspaper editorials and requests to the administration to add Black professors and advisors.
  7. In February 2019, ropes were hung outside the Art Building, including one in a noose. The Art Department said in an email to the Mills community that the ropes were part of an art installation.